What George Bush Must Now Do

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

February 21, 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s charm offensive in Europe last week was greeted with barely restrained enthusiasm across the continent. Far from disparaging allies as some in the first Bush administration were wont to do, Rice stressed how important it is for the United States to repair its damaged foreign relationships. Her appointment of former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, a highly respected moderate, as Deputy Secretary of State further reinforces the view that “realism,” not “neoconservatism,” will be the hallmark of a second Bush term. With President Bush himself making his first post-inauguration visit to Europe for meetings with his EU and NATO counterparts next week, a hopeful sense is spreading among diplomats and others around the world that the second Bush administration will put a much higher priority on diplomacy and alliances than did the first one.

There is little doubt that the new team—starting with the President himself—now realizes that allied support for the United States, and the material benefits and legitimacy it can bring with it, are important. At the start of the first Bush term, many in the administration questioned whether the hugely powerful and prosperous United States had much need for alliances at all. They assumed, in any case, that most allies would follow the United States if only the President showed decisive leadership and made clear that Washington was going to act whether other countries agreed with it or not. Today, however, with the popularity of the United States at an all-time low, and with America bearing an overwhelming share of the human and financial burdens in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, only the most stubborn unilateralists would believe either that allies are not useful, or that they have little choice but to follow along. No one should doubt that the President and his new Secretary of State are sincere when they say that they now want to reach out to others.

The question, however, is whether they’re prepared to do anything other than declare their desire for better relations with the world, and the first signs are not encouraging. Indeed, the new tone notwithstanding, Bush has given every indication that he believes his reelection validated his approach to foreign policy, and that he has no reason to change it. After Bush made an excellent speech in Canada last month, for example, a journalist asked him whether he felt at all responsible for the polls in that country showing how unpopular America had become. Bush’s telling answer was that “we just had a poll in our country where people decided that the foreign policy of the Bush administration ought to?stay in place for four more years.” Similarly, in an interview with the Washington Post last month, Bush responded to questions about whether he should be held accountable for possible mistakes or misjudgments in Iraq by saying he saw the U.S. election as an “accountability moment”—in other words, his approach has been validated, end of story. Asked at recent press conference how he would deal with America’s image problem and build alliances, Bush said he would “reach out to others and explain why I make the decisions I make.”

The assumption that Rice’s appointment as Secretary of State is itself a sign of a new emphasis on diplomacy and alliances may also be flawed. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s most hawkish advisers in the first term, remain in place, as do most of their top advisers. And Rice herself, after all, was the National Security Adviser during the first Bush term, so there’s little reason to believe she’ll suddenly become more willing or able to oppose them just because she moves across town to the State Department. As Rice’s Senate hearings demonstrated, the administration is still unwilling to admit it got anything wrong, and it has no plans to change tack on any of the key issues of the day. As far as can so—far be surmised, Bush’s plan for his Europe trip is essentially to say: “We highly value allies and sincerely want to revive this alliance. Now please support my policies.”

The visit will not be entirely devoid of content. In the Middle East, American reengagement with and support for the Palestinians in the wake of Yassir Arafat’s death will and should be welcomed by Europe. But if Bush really wanted to seize the opportunity offered by the first foreign trip of his second term there is much more he could do. He could, for example, announce that the United States supports the European initiative on Iran’s nuclear program, and that the United States is itself prepared to engage directly with the Iranians. He could state that while the United States will not ratify the Kyoto treaty it will unilaterally cut toxic emissions, as proposed by Senators McCain and Lieberman. He could state categorically that the United States intends to treat all battlefield combatants captured in the war on terror, including those captures in Afghanistan and Iraq, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. He could end his ideological opposition to the International Criminal Court and support the EU’s request to involve it in the crisis in Sudan. And he could declare that U.S. policy is not to undermine European integration but rather to develop a strategic partnership with the European Union.

If the President were to do even some of these things, worthwhile in their own right, the world would take notice and America could start reversing its image as the problem rather than the solution in the world. If not, the start of a new administration will have been an opportunity lost, and the new emphasis on diplomacy will amount to nothing but nice words.